Obama pivots from terrorism to gas prices

Political operatives for both parties believe that pocketbook issues, not foreign policy, will determine the next election, and Obama was quick to pivot from terrorism back to voters’ economic concerns — high gasoline prices, for example.

At the end of a momentous week, President Obama headed for Indiana, hoping he’s now in a position to woo voters like Charlotte Michalak.

Michalak voted for Obama in 2008 and now finds herself uncertain. She works two jobs so she can pay her bills. She’s given up cable TV service to cut costs. Another large spike in gas prices, she fears, could sever her fraying link to the middle class, to her western Indiana home, to self-sufficiency.

“I want to see what’s out there,” Michalak, 55, said about the next election, as she ate lunch at a cafeteria here earlier this week. “I just want to see what’s being said and what’s happening.”


What’s been happening this week is a bit of a victory lap for the president in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death. Obama has seen his standing advance in the polls and Republicans retreat on their plan to overhaul Medicare. Voters have indicated to pollsters that they feel more confident in him as commander in chief.

Thursday he visited the former World Trade Center site. Later Friday, he headed to Ft. Campbell, Ky., to meet with the commandos who attacked Bin Laden’s compound and to shake hands with troops.

In front of 2,300 cheering soldiers gathered in a hangar, he declared a victory over Al Qaeda. “We have cut off their head,” Obama said, “and we will ultimately defeat them.” The death of Al Qaeda’s leader, he said, shows that “our strategy is working.”

But political operatives for both parties believe that pocketbook issues, not foreign policy, will determine the next election, and Obama was also quick to pivot from terrorism back to the economic concerns of voters like Michalak — high gasoline prices, for example.


“I know how tough it is,” said Obama, speaking at Allison Transmission in Indianapolis, which makes automatic transmissions for vehicles. “If you’ve got to drive to work and you may not be able to afford buying a new car, so you’ve got that old beater that gets you 8 miles per gallon, it’s tough. It is a huge strain on a lot of people.”

He pushed administration energy policies designed to boost automobile fuel efficiency and subsidize electric vehicles, saying they would lead to new manufacturing jobs and wean the U.S. off imported oil. And while he conceded that such measures are not a recipe for bringing down gas prices right away, he wanted frustrated voters to come away convinced that he sides with them — not the oil companies.

“Oil companies over the last five years, through a recession, through ups and downs, the top five oil companies, their profits have ranged between $75 billion and $125 billion,” he said. “And yet they still have a tax loophole that is costing taxpayers $4 billion every year. Now, if you’re already paying them at the pump, we don’t need to pay them through the tax code.”

This was Obama’s fifth trip to Indiana as president. In 2008 he narrowly won this state, the first Democrat to accomplish that since Lyndon B. Johnson. Two years later, Republicans scored big gains here by running against his policies.


“Had there been a presidential election in 2010, Obama would have lost badly,” said Tom Steiger, a sociology professor at Indiana State University.

Parts of the state are suffering. Vigo County, where Terre Haute is the largest city, is considered a bellwether, having voted for the winner in all but two presidential contests dating back more than a century. The pattern held in 2008, with Obama beating Republican John McCain, 57% to 41%.

Gas prices here average $4.19 a gallon — 5% higher than the national average, according to AAA’s daily fuel report. A year ago, the average price was $2.94.

County unemployment is running about half a point higher than in the rest of the country.


Completing the most successful military operation of his presidency helps Obama with some of the area’s voters.

“I thought it was great, and I’m a Republican,” said Sandra Henderson, 70, a retired teacher from Brazil, Ind. “He’s not going to back off from things. And I wasn’t sure of that before.”

For his recent gains in the polls to endure in places like this, Obama must show real progress in lowering the unemployment rate and bringing down gas prices, some Indiana Democrats say.

Joseph Anderson, a Terre Haute attorney and Democratic Party activist, said the Bin Laden killing solves for Obama an age-old political problem for Democratic presidents. Having vanquished the world’s most feared terrorist, Obama can rebut Republican accusations that he’s “a wimp,” showing that he is in fact a strong commander in chief, Anderson said.


But the economy is still the top issue, Anderson said. “If he doesn’t get things changed around, we’d get beat by Sarah Palin.”

Distress over the economy abounds. Donna Roof, 67, of Linton, Ind., said she recently bought a bicycle so that she wouldn’t waste money on gas for short trips to the drugstore and post office.

“It doesn’t look like much, but when gas is almost $4.50 a gallon and you start that car up and go for little runs,” the money adds up, she said.

Obama has promised Indiana residents help at the pump before. As a candidate three years ago, he appeared at an Indiana gas station and made many of the same arguments he gave on Friday. At that event he mentioned that gas prices were nearing $4 per gallon. Today, Indiana gas prices average $4.23.


If gas prices keep climbing, Michalak said, she may be forced to make tougher choices than parting with cable TV.

She mentions high healthcare premiums. Asked if Obama’s healthcare plan made a difference in her life, she said she was too busy to follow the debate surrounding its passage. She said she worked 70 hours a week at a title company and as a supermarket cashier.

Dependent on her Chevy Aveo, she has an eye on gas prices. She fears losing her home if the trends persist.

“Honest to God. Strip me naked and throw me under the bridge,” she said. “I won’t tell anyone who I am and I’ll be a homeless person. A lot of people are dealing with that.”


Christi Parsons of the Washington bureau, reporting from Ft. Campbell, Ky., contributed to this report.